Making It Visual for ELL Students: Teaching History Using Maus

9 - 12
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Fourteen 50-minute lessons
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This unit for secondary English-language learners (easily adaptable for reluctant readers) is designed to develop students' confidence and sense of autonomy in reading through the intellectually substantive graphic novel Maus. Maus deals with the traumatic history and enduring legacy of the Holocaust through multiple narratives of a father, mother, and son.

Ongoing lesson activities involving vocabulary study and reading strategies support students' comprehension of the novel.  Since Maus is the story of a son telling his father's story, students make personal connections to the text as they interview a family member and retell a story about that person's past. Students use websites listed in the lesson resources for research into World War II, the Holocaust, and human rights.  Structured discussion encourages students to relate human rights concepts to events in the novel, historical events, and events in their own experience.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Teaching graphic novels can be an alternative to traditional literacy pedagogy, which ignores the dynamic relationships of visual images to the written word.
  • The multimodalities of graphic novels such as Maus and Persepolis, along with their engaging content reflecting the diverse identities present in many classrooms, work in tandem to help deepen students' reading engagement and develop their critical literacies.
  • Making connections between these stories and students' own experiences, and drawing on their outside multiliteracies practices aid literacy development.
  • Students' engaged reading is "often socially interactive" (p. 4). These interactions are clearly evident in the reading club, chat room, blog, and posting activities that have flourished in the wake of recent phenomenally popular books among adolescent and adult readers.
  • Students' increased engagement with particular genres (in this case, graphic novels) can facilitate their entry and apprenticeship into important social networks that amplify opportunities for academic success in mainstream classes.
  • Situated practice, which draws in part from students' own life experiences
  • Overt instruction that introduces meta-languages to deconstruct the myriad and multimodal ways in which meaning is constructed
  • Critical framing of the cultural and social context in which meaning is disseminated and understood
  • Transformed practice that aims to re-situate all of these meaning-making practices to work in other cultural sites or contexts
  • One approach that fosters reading engagement involves a pedagogy of multiliteracies with its four dimensional instructional framework:

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 10. Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.

Materials and Technology

  • Maus (Vols. I & II) by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon Books, 1986; 1991)

  • Large map of Europe

  • Overhead projector with projection screen and transparencies

  • Computers with Internet access

  • DVD of The Pianist directed by Roman Polanski (Universal, 2003)

  • DVD player and monitor (or computer with DVD drive and projection capability)



Student Objectives

Students will

  • Learn about the Holocaust, its historical lessons, and important relevance for today

  • Develop critical reading and thinking skills through engagement with the graphic novel in a multiliteracies instructional framework

  • Develop and utilize visual literacy skills to aid and support reading comprehension and deepen understanding of history texts

  • Gain the knowledge to compare how specific content is presented across modal genres (films, websites, books, articles)

  • Present personal interpretations and understanding of history in oral and written forms

  • Draw on personal experiences and literacy practices to construct knowledge

Session 1: World War II—KWL chart and presentations

Given that many ELLs know little or nothing about the Holocaust, a few introductory activities are required to provide background information.

1. Divide students into groups of four, taking care to distribute them into groups representing differing languages, cultures, and educational backgrounds. Give each group a large piece of paper and model what the KWL chart should look like on the board. The title at the top of the chart can read World War II. Have students brainstorm for about 15 minutes and record any and all ideas about the topic in the Know column.
2. When students seem to be running low on ideas, post a map of Europe on the board. Display symbols such as a swastika and a Star of David. Present pictures (from books or as slides) of D-Day, the Warsaw ghetto, and so on. This usually activates further discussion.
3. Have students work in their groups for about 10 minutes to contribute questions for the Want to know column. Provide a list of model question starters, such as, Who was...? How did...? Why would...?, which will help students formulate both surface and deeper-meaning questions. Have students try to form five different questions, using different starter words.

Note: Group work is recommended because students who have no background in this subject matter can benefit by working with other students who know a little more or who at least are confident about forming questions.
4. Have the groups present their questions to the class as a whole. It is sometimes necessary to switch from facilitator to traditional teacher mode here, so that incorrect factual information can be cleared up. Instruct students listening to the presentations to add additional questions to their own charts.
5. After all the charts have been presented, review the questions together, encouraging students to answer if possible. End the session by asking students to reflect on how they would be able to get the answers to their remaining questions. Finally, offer a brief overview of the Holocaust.
6. Post the word Holocaust, along with other key terms needed to understand Maus, on a class word wall. Key terms include: genocide, Hitler, Nazism, Fascism, concentration camp, Jew, Star of David, and scapegoat.

Note: Based on the Want to know questions formulated by the class, prior to Session 2 you can develop a list of guiding questions for Internet research, to help direct students to key points. Also identify specific sections, paragraphs, or graphics within the recommended Websites in the Resources section to facilitate fact finding. Post or bookmark the websites you wish students to visit. Most students lack the ability to select sites that are appropriate to their reading level, and are not skilled at filtering out commercial or inappropriate sites.

Session 2: World War II Research

This research may require more than one session.

1. Have students do some preliminary research using the websites United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Holocaust History Project.
2. Circulate among students and offer help in navigating the sites. If necessary, guide students to specific areas of text or graphics where they can get the information they need. (Because the reading level of most websites is fairly high, students often need assistance from the teacher.)

Session 3: Human Rights—KWL

1. Follow the same procedure as for Session 1, but shift the topic to human rights. It may be necessary to offer examples of what human rights are, or what happens when they are violated, in order to get the groups going. Encourage students to use examples from their own countries and neighborhoods.
2. After the groups have presented their Want to know questions, following the same procedure used for the KWL chart for World War II, have students do a think-pair-share on the following questions:
  • How would a huge war such as World War II affect people's human rights?
  • Based on what you learned yesterday about the Holocaust, what kinds of human rights were violated during this time?
  • Why should we study the Holocaust? Is there any connection between the human rights violations of the Holocaust and any of the examples from the KWL charts you presented today?
  • Conduct a class-wide discussion on these questions to set the stage for the two main topics that will be discussed during the course of reading Maus: the personal, human experiences of World War II and the core concepts of human rights, what they are, and why they must be protected.

Session 4: Film

Show students the first half of the film The Pianist, up to the point where Szpilman's family is sent away to Auschwitz on the train. This excerpt shows the systemic way in which the Jews' rights were taken away, and gives students a strong feeling of time and place. It also offers a point for comparisons once they have gotten into reading Maus.

Sessions 5–6: Introduction to Narrative and Point of View

Maus is the story of a son telling his father's story. For teenagers, telling stories of one's parents may not be an activity they readily connect with. An in-class writing assignment helps to set the stage for Art Spiegelman's project about his own father. A few days prior to Session 5, give students a homework assignment to interview a family member. Explain that they are gathering information for a story (which they will write in class) about that person's past, so they should take notes on all important details, such as names and dates.

Session 5

1. Explain that students will be telling a story of the past that a parent or other family member shared with them. Model ways to begin such a story, such as, "My mom doesn't usually like to talk about her past, but last week when I asked her to tell me something, she shared this funny story about how she met my dad...." or "My grandfather has a story about coming to this country, which he has told us many times. It all started when...."
2. Allow students the rest of Session 5 to write their stories. Distribute copies of the Story Organizer if desired to help them structure the narrative. Provide support and assistance to individual students as needed.

Session 6

1. Distribute copies of pages 5-6 of book I of Maus (with the last three panels on page 6 blank). Have students read these pages and finish the panels themselves, imagining how a father would react to this situation. Many students will claim they can't draw, but with the characters right there in front of them, they will be able to achieve success.
2. Post or share the artwork and discuss the different endings students came up with. Then share the actual page (using a transparency) and discuss why the father said what he did. Connect to their growing knowledge of the Holocaust, and finally discuss Spiegelman's choice of representing Jews as mice.


Sessions 7–11: Vocabulary and Reading Strategies

In order to maximize students' comprehension, preteaching vocabulary in each session is highly recommended. Choose 5-10 words that you know students will be encountering in upcoming pages. For example, in Chapter 1 of Maus, the following words may not be familiar to students: dowry, bachelor, well off, hosiery, druggist, reputation, and character. Choose words that are general enough that they would be found in other contexts. (Words specific to the story, such as Auschwitz, should be talked about separately.)

Session 7

1. Write each word, along with the part of speech and the simplest definition, on the board. Then write a sentence using the word for students to copy into their notes. It is important to build redundancy into the sentence you give students so that the meaning of the word is reinforced when they go back to look at their notes. For example, if the word is dizzy, the sentence could be "After spinning around and around for 20 minutes, the little girl felt dizzy and had to sit down."
2. Following this, give additional examples using the same word. Include examples that are intentionally wrong. Ask students if the word has been used correctly or not, and have them explain why or why not.

Sessions 8-11
Continue to spend the beginning of each session (about half of the session) on vocabulary instruction, targeting words that will appear in the reading. Spend the rest of the session on reading strategies.

1. Because many students will be unfamiliar with the graphic novel form, begin with teacher-directed reading, and move towards paired or individual reading. Keep students accountable and engaged by assigning something to look for as they read or previewing a question you will require random students to answer after reading a short section.
2. Using varied graphic organizers, model and assign tasks involving prediction, forming questions, and summarizing what they have read. Story Map for Essays, Character Perspective Chart, and Story Organizer can help students understand the story as it unfolds.

Sessions 12–14: Critical Connections

One of the stated goals of this lesson is to develop students' awareness of human rights by helping them to make the connection between the violations of human rights during the Holocaust and the continuing need for vigilance about rights, including situations in their own counties and lives. It is therefore useful to familiarize students with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Session 12

1. Distribute copies of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
2. Read and discuss the Declaration as a class.

Session 13

1. Have students read one of these suggested website sections and relate it to a scene in Maus:
  • For the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site, go to the section called Education then to For Students and then to Holocaust Encyclopedia. Have students choose a subheading that they recognize, such as Nazi camps or forced labor, and relate the information to a scene in Maus.
  • For The Holocaust History Project, go to the short essays in the left sidebar and then to General Information on the Holocaust, which gives a good overview and historical context that students will need to understand the novel more comprehensively.
2. Encourage students to explore other examples of genocide and human rights abuses on these same sites. Just scrolling through pictures (e.g., the Rwandan genocide) can spark connections to their own histories.
3. Have students meet in groups and discuss human rights as they relate to the information on these websites.

Session 14

Divide students into groups and assign each group a number of the rights listed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ask them to prepare an oral presentation. Topics for discussion may include

  • Which rights from their section they understand best
  • Which are most important
  • Examples of how these rights are protected or violated in their own world


Persuasive Essay: Have students write a persuasive essay using the thesis "human rights are important and must be protected." Ideally this would not be students' first attempt at writing a multi-paragraph essay.

  • A prewriting graphic organizer, such as the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet is critical. Explain that each body paragraph should deal with one reason why human rights must be protected.

  • Class time should be structured to allow for at least one individual conference with each student, and the essay should be written primarily in class to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed.

  • You may wish to have students evaluate one another's essays using the Peer Review Guidelines for Persuasive Essays.

Guided Essay: Once students have read Book I and are reading Book II, they will know enough about the character of Vladek Speigelman to be able to write a simple essay about his character traits. The essay should be highly structured:

  • Help students write an introduction that ends with a thesis-like statement, such as "Vladek is a brave, resourceful, and sad man."

  • Follow with three body paragraphs, each starting with a simple topic sentence including one of the characteristics. Support these adjectives with concrete examples from the text. (Allow for prewriting exercises in which students find these examples.) Follow each example with a sentence or two of original commentary.

  • Conclude with a fifth paragraph about how these characteristics have affected Vladek's life.

Comparison with Persepolis: Watch the film Persepolis and have students compare topics, themes, graphic styles, and character development. Use graphic organizers to facilitate note-taking and critical thinking. It will be necessary to provide students with some background on Iranian history in order for them to get the most out of the film. Consider teaching the lessons, "Gaining Background for the Graphic Novel Persepolis: A WebQuest on Iran" and "Pictures Tell the Story: Improving Comprehension With Persepolis."

Other Stories Wall: Have students read other stories from survivors on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. Students should take notes on names, countries, and experiences to use in a brief summary. This summary should then be made into a small poster, including a graphic or illustration connected to what they have read. When students have completed this, have them use the same format to make a poster about a different time and place, showing either human rights violations or how human rights are supported. For example, one student might summarize the story of how her mother and aunt struggled to survive during the civil war in El Salvador, another might write about the Armenian genocide, and others might write about the right to a free education that they are currently enjoying. All student work can be posted as "walls" using the title "Human Rights."

Family Stories: Have students narrate their own or their family's life histories and stories in the form of a graphic novel, using either Comic Life (on Mac computers) or PowerPoint software to create panels that include pictures or photos and text.

Student Assessment / Reflections

The primary mode of assessing students' reading comprehension is through written tests. Questions should be constructed as follows:

  • Comprehension: To test basic comprehension and retention of historical information discussed in class, or details from the text, use questions that require simple short answer responses, such as:
  • What country is Vladek from?

  • Using three adjectives, describe Auschwitz.
  • Constructed Response: Have students demonstrate their engagement with the text by writing short, constructed responses. Sample questions include:
  • Describe the differences between Vladek and Anja's experience.

  • Why do you think some Poles were willing to help the Jews, while others were not?

    Before giving the assessment, model what is expected as a response to one of these longer questions. Sentence starters can be posted in the classroom or included on the test to aid students with structure and the type of language that will demonstrate the depth of their thinking on the topic. It is extremely important that the language used in the test questions is familiar, and that the types of thinking and inquiry about the text have already been modeled.

  • Vocabulary: Assess students’ understanding of vocabulary words introduced each day by asking them to finish sentences, such as:
  1. Tim told his teacher he felt dizzy;


  2. I have to pay the tailor;


  3. Most Jews in Poland were forced to relocate;


    The first parts of these sentences are deliberately vague, forcing students to demonstrate their understanding of the word by completing the sentence with a related idea.

  • KWL chart: Take out the KWL charts and have students finish the Learned column. Have students share their results. Conduct a discussion on whether or not they felt reading a graphic novel was an effective and interesting way to learn about history.
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